New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5)

In a league with so few top level teams, it’s surprising that the Falcons aren’t getting more Super Bowl hype. They rank 3rd in the NFL in point differential and 2nd in first down rate differential and are 10-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their defense has major problems, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the season, but their offense has been far and away the best in the league this season, even ahead of the Dallas Cowboys.

They’ve picked up a first down or a touchdown on an outstanding 43.48% of snaps this season, while the Cowboys, who are 2nd best in that metric, have done so on “just” 40.86% of snaps. For comparison, there’s a bigger gap between the #1 ranked team in first down rate and the #2 ranked team than there is between the #2 and #6 ranked teams. The Falcons are not a well-rounded team, but their offense is so dominant that it might not matter, especially in a year where few teams are standing out.

That being said, the Saints are also an underrated team and I think we’re getting good line value with them, as this line is at a full touchdown. The Saints actually rank tied for 4th in the NFL in offensive touchdown margin, with 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, only behind New England, Dallas, and Atlanta, who has a +11 offensive touchdown margin. They also have a +41 first down margin, which is 3rd best in the NFL, and they rank 7th in first down rate differential. They are just 7-8 as a result of because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer.

The Saints lost to the Falcons 45-32 in New Orleans earlier this year, but actually had 32 first downs to 26 for the Falcons in that game and it would have been a much closer game if not for two New Orleans turnovers, including one returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Outside of those 2 snaps, it was a pretty evenly matched game. That loss actually puts the Saints in a good betting spot this week, as comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time.

These two teams aren’t quite comparable and it would be a bigger play if I didn’t think so highly of the Falcons, but the Saints are definitely an underrated team that can keep this one close. Aside from their first matchup with the Falcons, which was closer than the final score suggested, the Saints have just one other loss by more than a touchdown all season and I don’t expect the Falcons to make it three this week. If you can get the full touchdown with the Saints, this is worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 31 New Orleans Saints 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +7

Confidence: Medium

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) at New Orleans Saints (6-8)

This is a tough one. On one hand, the Saints are the better of these two teams, despite the Buccaneers having a 2 game lead in the standings and winning a close matchup between these two teams in Tampa Bay a couple weeks back. The Saints enter this game with a point differential of +14, as opposed to -9 for the Buccaneers. The Saints actually rank 3rd in the NFL with a +10 offensive touchdown margin, but are just 6-8 as a result of because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. In terms of first down rate differential, the Saints rank 8th, while the Buccaneers rank 24th. Despite that, this line is at 3, suggesting these two teams are equal, so we’re getting some line value with the Saints.

On the other hand, the Saints are in a tough spot with a trip to Atlanta on deck, while the Buccaneers get to host the last place Carolina Panthers. Divisional home favorites are just 23-61 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road favorites. On top of that, favorites are 61-97 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites, which the Buccaneers almost definitely will be next week at home against the Panthers. With another tough game on deck, the Saints could have trouble playing their best, while the Buccaneers should be completely focused.

The Buccaneers are also in a good spot in their second of two road games. Teams are 142-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 113-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 239-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.94 points per game, as opposed to 341-476 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game. I’m taking the Saints, but this is a no confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: None

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New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-8) at Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1)

Both of these teams have losing records, but both have played significantly better than their record would suggest. In fact, the Saints have a +9 offensive touchdown differential, tied for 4th best in the NFL, and the Cardinals have a +8 offensive touchdown differential, 6th in the NFL. The Cardinals have played well this season, with the exception of a few special teams plays that have unfortunately decided games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And last week, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They’ve won the first down rate battle in 11 of 13 games and rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season, but their season is essentially over at 5-7-1 because of a handful of special teams screw ups.

The Saints, meanwhile, rank 6th in first down rate differential, but their season is essentially over as well at 5-8, because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. The Cardinals are the better team and are only favored by 2.5 here at home, so I’m taking them, but I can’t be confident in them, especially with a tough Seattle game on deck. The Saints are also in a good spot in their second of two road games. Teams are 141-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 112-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 236-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.97 points per game, as opposed to 338-473 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.98 points per game. The Cardinals are the pick, but I wouldn’t put money on them this week.

Arizona Cardinals 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona -2.5

Confidence: Low

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New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-6)

The Saints are just 5-7, but enter this game 5th in first down rate differential. That’s because, on the season, the Saints have 39 more first downs than their opponents (the 2nd best differential in the league) and 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents (tied for the 4th best differential in the league), but are just 5-7 because of because of a -4 margin in return touchdowns and 5 losses by 6 points or fewer (including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer). They had their worst week of the season last week in a 15-point home loss to the Lions, but could easily be 7-5 or 8-4 or even 9-3 right now if a few things had gone their way.

Despite that, the Saints are 3 point underdogs here in Tampa Bay, suggesting these two teams are even. The Buccaneers are 7-5, but rank 25th in first down rate differential. They’re not a bad team and they’re relatively healthy right now, but the Saints are also relatively healthy right now and are definitely the better team in this one, despite what the records say. The Buccaneers have also had a weak homefield advantage in recent years, going 20-39 ATS at home since 2009, including just 2-4 ATS at home this season. The Saints are my Pick of the Week this week.

New Orleans Saints 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Upset Pick +125

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

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Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints: 2016 Week 13 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (7-4) at New Orleans Saints (5-6)

The Saints enter this game at 5-6 and the Lions enter at 7-4, but the Saints have been much better than their record this season, while the Lions have been much worse than their record. On the season, the Saints have 43 more first downs than their opponents (the 2nd best differential in the league) and 11 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents (tied for the 3rd best differential in the league), but are just 5-6 because of because of a -4 margin in return touchdowns and 5 losses by 6 points or fewer (including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer). They could easily be 7-4 or 8-3 right now if a few things had gone their way.

The Lions, meanwhile, have trailed in the 4th quarter of all 11 games, but have managed to pull off the comeback in 7 of them. That’s impressive, but hardly sustainable. While the Saints enter this game 4th in first down rate differential, the Lions enter in 26th as they’ve allowed 12 more first downs than they’ve gained and 4 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve scored. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a ton of line value in the wake of New Orleans’ 49-21 blowout victory over the Rams last week, as this line has jumped from 3.5 on the early line to 6 this week. With that in mind, I’m actually taking the Lions here for pick ‘em purposes, as underdogs of 6 or more are 149-99 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of 6 or more, which the Lions will be next week when they host the Bears. With no real upcoming distractions, the Lions have a good chance of keeping it close against a superior opponent once again. The Lions don’t have a loss by more than a touchdown all season. I wouldn’t put money on either side though.

Update: There have been some injury developments on Saturday. Top linebacker Tahir Whitehead was ruled out for the Lions despite practicing in a limited fashion this week. Wide receiver Marvin Jones has also practiced in a limited fashion this week, but reportedly will also sit tomorrow, though he hasn’t officially been ruled out. It’s a bad sign for his chances that the Lions called another wide receiver up off the practice squad though. Despite those developments, this line has dropped from 6 to 5.5 today. It’s still a no confidence pick, but I’m switching to the Saints.

New Orleans Saints 34 Detroit Lions 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: None

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Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2016 Week 12 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (4-6) at New Orleans Saints (4-6)

The Saints are just 4-6, but rank 4th in first down rate differential. They have 29 more first downs than their opponents on the season and 7 more offensive touchdowns, but are just 4-6 because of a -4 margin in return touchdowns and 5 losses by 6 points or fewer (including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer). They could easily be 6-4 or 7-3 right now if a few things had gone their way. They’re also as healthy as they’ve been all season and are subsequently playing easily their best football of the season right now. Key players like Delvin Breaux, Sheldon Rankins, and Terron Armstead have all missed time so far for the Saints, but all 3 are expected to be back on the field this week.

The Rams are as healthy as they’ve been all season right now too, but they’re not nearly as good as the Saints are when both teams are healthy. The Rams have hardly had any injuries on offense this season, but still enter this game a distant dead last in first down rate. Their defense is solid when everyone is healthy, but the Rams are still not nearly as good of a team as the Saints, despite their identical records. They enter this game 31st in first down rate differential, thanks to an offense that is nearly a full percentage point behind the nearest team in first down rate. As a result, they haven’t scored more than 10 points in any of their last 4 games, which is remarkable in the modern era of offense. The Saints’ defense has gotten a lot better as the season has gone on, so the Rams could easily have trouble scoring points again this week.

Making matters worse for the Rams, they have to turn around and play an even tougher game next week when they go to New England. The early line has them as 14 point underdogs. Underdogs of 6 or more, like the Rams this week, are 49-78 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6 or more again, as it’s very tough for inferior teams to play well enough to keep it close against superior teams when they have another tough game on deck. Going off of that, teams are just 41-62 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 10 or more. Big upcoming games tend to serve as a distraction for teams. This line is pretty high at 7, but the Rams are going to have a lot of trouble hanging with the Saints this week, so I have no problem laying the points.

New Orleans Saints 27 Los Angeles Rams 13

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: High

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New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2016 Week 11 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (4-5) at Carolina Panthers (3-6)

The Panthers lost last week by a field goal at home, their 4th loss this season by 3 points or fewer. This loss was particularly heartbreaking for them as they led 17-0 early, but blew the lead and ended up losing 20-17 on the strength of a return touchdown and a late takeaway in Carolina territory that set up the winning field goal. Even though they won the game, the Chiefs actually didn’t score a single offensive touchdown all game and lost the first down battle 22-18. As you can imagine given all of their close loss, the Panthers have played better overall than their record suggests, as they rank 14th in first down rate differential. It’s a far cry from their 2015 team, but they could easily be 5-4 or 6-3 right now if a couple things had gone their way.

The problem for them this week is the Saints are also better than their record. The Saints enter this game at 4-5, but 3 of those losses came by 3 points or fewer, including a heartbreaker last week in which the Saints’ go-ahead extra point was blocked and returned for a game winning 2-point conversion by the Broncos’ defense. The Saints enter this game 8th in first down rate differential, a few spots higher than the Panthers, and also have a better point differential (-5 vs. +2). At 3.5 in favor of the host Carolina Panthers, this line suggests the Panthers are a slightly better team than the Saints, but I think it’s the other way around.

At the very least, these two teams are even, so this line shouldn’t be any higher than a field goal. The difference between 3 and 3.5 might not seem like much, but considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, it’s a pretty big half point. The Saints are also in a better spot, as they host the lowly Rams next week, while the Panthers have to travel to face Oakland. Underdogs are 91-59 ATS since 2012 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. Even if the Panthers win, this game figures to be close, so I’d put money on the Saints at 3.5. At +3, it’s probably worth buying the half point.

Carolina Panthers 24 New Orleans Saints 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3.5

Confidence: Medium

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